Disclaimer: Spoiler Alert! We’ll be talking about a few things that happen in the film, specifically the E-2D aircraft, so don’t continue reading if you haven’t watched it yet.

We’re sure most of you have seen the new film, Top Gun: Maverick, and all its glory. The new Tom Cruise-starred film has recently been recorded to break the $1 billion mark worldwide, making it an instant worldwide hit! While everybody was busy fawning over the F/A-18 Super Hornet, eagled-eyed movie fans and military personnel may have spotted the iconic E-2D Advanced Hawkeye Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft in the film.

Its appearance in the movie is a significant development for the movie franchise as the 1986 Top Gun film did not show or feature the navy version of the AWACS aircraft, which is surprising as the E-2 Hawkeye has been in service since the early 1960s, specifically with the US Navy in 1964. This makes the new Top Gun film more accurate than its predecessor in terms of what actually comprises a carrier battle group.  It also gives it due to one of the most important aircraft on any carrier as the E2D is the eyes of a carrier fleet at sea.

As you may have seen in one of the scenes, Captain Pete Mitchell (callsign Maverick played by Tom Cruise), along with three other F/A-18 Super Hornets, are flying toward an enemy target deep in enemy territory. Swooping into the scene in a cameo is the E-2D Advanced Hawkeye Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft, reassuring Maverick and the team that they’re on their radar and that the E-2D can spot anything headed their way to help them prepare if and when enemy fighter jets are en route to them.

Many non-military moviegoers must have been thinking, “What the heck is that big, large, long, round… dish on the top of that plane?” Well, kids, we’ll tell you the story of that aircraft and that dish you have all been wondering about in this article that we might as well call the movie, ‘Top Dome.”

The E-2D Hawkeye

Ah yes, the E-2D Hawkeye from Northrop Grumman’s E-2 line of aircraft. So what does it actually do? More so, what is that large dome on top of it? The E-2D Hawkeye is an airborne early warning aircraft, essentially a command and control platform for sea and air surveillance. As combat was increasingly shifting in the 50s, the US military needed to up its game in terms of airborne radars as the E-1 Tracer was becoming obsolete.

Perhaps more specifically, the E-2 Hawkeye provides carrier strike groups all-weather, airborne early warning capabilities to see further than what the fighter jets can hence the large “top dome” radar carried above the aircraft’s fuselage. The new E-2D Advanced Hawkeye is the most modern, featuring new avionics with the new AN/APY-9 radar. It also comes with integrated satellite communications, a flight management system, an improved radio suite, an improved T56-A-427A engine, and is capable of aerial refueling.

Perhaps more notable for our aircraft fans on the site, its APY-9 radar has an active electronically scanned array (AESA) which adds electronic scanning to the mechanical rotation of its radome. Pretty neat equipment to add, if we do say so ourselves! The radar may also detect stealth aircraft and fighter jets such as the Su-57, the Chengdu J-20, and the Shenyang J-31. These capabilities earned the E-2 aircraft the role of being the “eyes of the fleet,” serving with the US Navy around the world for many decades.

This is because during combat operations the carrier battle group tends to operate in EMCON or Emissions Control where ships shut off all their long and medium-range radio frequency emitting devices and go dark to avoid their signals being detected by the enemy.    The Hawkeye operates 100-150 miles from the carrier able to scan the seas and skies and link its data to the carrier and give them the sight picture of what’s going on around the Carrier Battle Group.

An E-2D Advanced Hawkeye, assigned to Carrier Airborne Early Warning Squadron (VAW) 121, the "Bluetails”, launches from the runway on Naval Station Norfolk during its inaugural test with the squadron. The E-2D Advanced Hawkeye is the U.S. Navy's latest variant of the E-2 Hawkeye advanced warning aircraft. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Shane A. Jackson/Released). Source: https://www.dvidshub.net/image/1671336/e-2d-advanced-hawkeye-launch
An E-2D Advanced Hawkeye, assigned to Carrier Airborne Early Warning Squadron (VAW) 121, the “Bluetails”, launches from the runway on Naval Station Norfolk during its inaugural test with the squadron. The E-2D Advanced Hawkeye is the U.S. Navy’s latest variant of the E-2 Hawkeye advanced warning aircraft. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Shane A. Jackson/Released/DVIDS)

Aside from its primary command and control tasks, it is also a multi-mission platform. It can also coordinate airborne strikes, rescue operations, land force support, and be a reliable communications network for different types of missions.

This line of aircraft has served the US Armed Forces well, having directed F-14 Tomcats during a two-carrier battle group joint strike against Libyan terrorists in 1986, command and control missions in the first Arabian Gulf War in the 1990s. It has also directed land attacks and air patrol missions in Iraq, helping F/A-18s shoot down Iraqi MiG-21s.

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These aircraft are the unsung heroes of aircraft operations. Most people don’t know how crucial they are to the success of various missions, especially those involving fighter and strike aircraft. Being the eye in the sky means that the aircraft is responsible for giving those critical “heads up” if they see something pop up on the radar from miles away. It can also stay longer in the air than everybody in the squadron due to its fuel-efficient propeller-driven engines.

But of course, we have sailors aboard the E-2D Hawkeye to thank as the aircraft cannot function without the smarts! With two pilots at the controls and three sensor position operators aboard, the crew makes sure that their squadron is safe from their enemies, monitoring its systems in rain or shine and day and night. Situational awareness is key here, and with six highly trained NFOs to work those radars, the crewmembers of the E-2D are surely not lacking in this skill.

An aircraft carrier will typically have four of these aircraft aboard and one will generally be in the air 24 hours a day during periods of active flight operations.

It may not be as fast or as cool looking as your fighter jets, but it’s honestly not built for speed and attacking enemy aircraft, naval targets, or ground forces. With a max speed of 400 miles per hour (350 knots), it goes way slower than the fighter jets, but that’s an unfair comparison considering both aircraft were designed with different functionalities. So to all those comparing these two types of aircraft, the E-2Ds perform a different task than your fighter jets. They work hand in hand, if we say so ourselves, like two pieces of a puzzle making the mission work without any hitches.

Wherever the fighter jets go, there’s always be those controllers like the E-2Ds leading the way. That’s just how operations go realistically, and sadly enough, we don’t get to see these aircraft in films as they’re not flashy things that make the audience go “wow.” Still, itcertainly is the aircraft most fighter pilots are thankful for.

A Time to Reminisce

If you moviegoers would remember the original top gun, you’d remember that Maverick and another pilot with the callsign “Cougar” were flying up in the skies with their two F-14 Tomcat fighter jets. They were scrambled as an “unknown threat” was approaching their US aircraft carrier, the USS Enterprise (the film used the USS Ranger for some scenes).

They thought only one MiG-28 (not a real fighter jet, played by an F-5E Tiger II) was approaching them. However, they discovered that two MiG-28s were coming when they were closing the distance.  The MiG-28s were flying close to each other, merging their signal on radar screens at a distance to make it appear that there was only one bogie instead of two. The Combat Information Center of the aircraft carrier also did not know there were two targets.  In truth it would have been an E2C that was feeding that info to the carriers, but either the writers didn’t know how air intercepts work on a carrier or they didn’t want to spend the money for the additional flying footage of one for the movie and simplified the scene.

In essence, if they had some E2 Hawkeyes flying during that scene, they would have been able to see that there were two MiG-28s (again, not a real fighter jet) coming to them. In fact, these E2s would have identified that there were two aircraft some 150 miles away(even given the tech available in the mid 1980s), and got their awareness of the tactical situation up to speed.

Now that Maverick and the guys are actually faced with a real foreign aircraft in the new film, the Sukhoi Su-57 Felon, they finally gave the venerable E-2Ds protecting the carriers some long-overdue credit as the Eyes of the Fleet.